The future of in-car tech starts in your pocket

BMW i8 conceptIn recent years, automakers from around the world have used the LA Auto Show as the coming out party for their alternative-drivetrain (read: green) vehicles. This year’s show, however, was a little different. While EVs like the Chevy Spark EV, hybrids like the BMW i8 concept, and even diesel-powered vehicles from Audi populated the showfloor, the next big challenge for automakers isn’t under the hood, it’s in drivers’ pockets. Now that nearly half of all Americans have smartphones, how can cars tap into them without sacrificing safety or functionality?

Automakers like Chevrolet, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Mini, and Mazda, are all taking different approaches to bringing the smartphone experience into the car safely and effectively. Even companies that traditionally have had very little to do with the automotive world, like Intel and Sprint, made appearances at this year’s LA Auto Show. Without question, it’s clear the focus in LA has shifted from just green vehicles to moving towards the “connected car” in a big way.

But what is the “connected car?” The way automakers see it, people getting into their cars want the freedom that their smart devices provide, without diverting their eyes from the road to get it. We want to check the latest basketball scores, Tweet interesting (or pointless) blurbs to the world, update our Facebook statuses, and access the Web’s nearly infinite amount of data at virtually all times, even behind the wheel.

la auto show phone dash chevy mylinkAnd companies are obliging. Nearly every automaker we talked to has some sort of solution in the pipeline in order to keep drivers connected. Whether it’s through the cloud, adding more processing power into the cars themselves, through Wi-Fi, or all of the above, we’re approaching the turning point where staying connected to the world while traveling on four wheels won’t be a perk reserved for the tech savvy or wealthy; it’s going to be the standard across the board.

Some automakers are further ahead of the game than others, and the ones leading the pack may surprise you. As it turns out though, it’s not the luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes that have us most excited; it’s companies like GM, Chrysler, and Ford – which began bridging the gap  between car and phone all the way back in the pre-iPhone days of 2007 with Sync. Apple’s recent collaboration with GM to integrate Siri into the upcoming Chevrolet Spark and Spark EV is a perfect example of this, too. The next-generation MyLink infotainment system debuting in the 2014 Impala was designed from the ground up to resemble an iPad. Everything is controlled through the touchscreen or voice. You can even customize your home screen by pressing down on an icon and moving it around with your finger, just as you would on a tablet.

Audi already partners with T-Mobile to provide Wi-Fi access in select models, and BMW’s 2012 335i lets you run Google searches. Virtually every automaker that has an EV or plug-in hybrid has a corresponding app that lets you check your car’s remaining battery charge, or plan out charging schedules remotely.

Sprint made its LA Auto Show debut by teaming up with Chrysler to offer Sprint Velocity service in the 2013 SRT Viper and upcoming UConnect systems. Velocity will provide on-demand Wi-Fi in future Chrysler vehicles, meaning you can purchase Wi-Fi in blocks: a day, a week or a month at a time. Don’t need access when you’re not on a road trip? Don’t pay for it.

LA Auto show sprint velocityThe carrier has more ambitious plans as well. In the future, Velocity will work as virtual concierge service to cater to your every need. For instance, it could ask aloud if you’d like to resume what you were listening to last when you get in the car, receive incoming digital coupons, and even purchase takeout or other items from a virtual marketplace. It sounds far fetched, but this is where the automotive experience seems to be headed.

Intel’s vision of the future car experience takes this “virtual concierge” concept a step further. The company’s teaser reel showed a car that could snap a photo of a landmark, save it to a hard drive and rattle off information on that landmark like an encyclopedia. Another example showed the car calculating the road conditions in real time, giving the driver hints of possible vehicles ahead, or tricky turns they may not have been aware of. As Intel sees it, we won’t just be interacting with our cars, our cars will be interacting with us.

Whether you think infotainment systems like Cadillac’s CUE provide advanced functionality and convenience, or unwelcome distraction, it’s really just scratching the surface of what in-car tech can do. If the 2012 LA Auto Show proved anything, its that automakers aren’t just looking to keep us connected to the road anymore, but to the world at large.